Leslie Dunton-Downer and Alan Riding, Essential Shakespeare Handbook (DK Publishing, 2004)

Who could have guessed that the plays written by someone widely considered to be a mediocre actor would still be debated, studied, scrutinized — and sometimes even enjoyed, depending on the environment — four hundred years later? Whoever really wrote them, the works attributed to William Shakespeare deserve this sort of admiration due to the complexity of characterization, adaptation of plots, entertainment value, insight into the human condition, and just simply beautiful language contained in his prolific writings.

Any visitor to a random bookstore will uncover myriad books on Shakespeare, but DK's Essential Shakespeare Handbook is one that truly fulfills the promise of its title. With all the works divided into color-coded sections for Histories, Tragedies, Comedies, and Romances, it's easy to find the one you want. There is also a section on the Narrative Poems, but 400 of the almost 500 pages are devoted to the 39 plays in the canon.

Along with a complete list and description of its Dramatis Personae, a full summary of each work is presented, act by act, with icons denoting the presence of speeches, songs, soliloquies, instances of magic and the supernatural, and the deaths of characters. In addition, for each entry there are useful sections on "Reading the Play," "Seeing the Play," and "Beyond the Play" — with informational sidebars concerning literary and historical sources, featured players and performances, and interesting use of language. Modern readers will appreciate the mention of notable film adaptations and amateur historians will enjoy the opening sections on the playwright's life and the Elizabethan era, with emphasis on how his plays fit in that context.

But it's the dedicated attention to what most would call trivia that kept me turning the pages. Obsessive completists like myself learn how a particular play's length compares to the shortest (The Comedy of Errors, 1786 lines) and longest (Hamlet, 4024 lines) plays, and where it lies on the timeline from the earliest-written (Henry VI, Part I, 1589-90) to the most recent (The Two Noble Kinsmen, 1614). Also important to minutiae gatherers are a breakdown of the percentage ratio of prose to verse, a line count per act (and per character; remember the "Great Actors" sketch from Monty Python's Matching Tie and Handkerchief?), as well as Great Role designations for actors who, one supposes, don't wish to waste their skills on portraying "insignificant" Shakespearean characters.

The Essential Shakespeare Handbook is also beautifully packaged. Copiously supplied with photographs (often a few per page), it looks as good as it reads, with dramatic selections from stage and film performances (with many celebrities featured), historical drawings and engravings, and lots of color. The flexiback binding allows for ease of use, portability, and extended life.

In the short time that I have owned the Essential Shakespeare Handbook, it has become indispensible in my further appreciation of Shakespeare's works, offering thorough, well-researched information from Dunton-Downer and Riding, authors who are clearly also fans.

This fascinating book belongs on the bookshelf of everyone even remotely interested in Shakespeare, right alongside their well-thumbed copy of Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare; like that book, it is particularly useful for the first-time reader. DK should be proud of their work; they have put together a wonderful tome devoted to all areas of Shakespeariana.

[Craig Clarke]

Look inside the Essential Shakespeare Handbook at the DK Web site